These blogs are part of a series of reflections on the conditions at the U.S.-Mexico border. As long as we are called to respond with mercy to our migrant sisters and brothers, we will continue to pray and act on this Critical Concern of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. Read other stories of Mercy on the Border here.
By Sister Diane Guerin
As my final days at the border approached, I found myself wanting to remain, yet knowing that it was time for me to go home. The pace, as well as the emotional impact, were great.
No two days were ever the same. I always began my days with sandwich making and snack bag preparation, and this could be followed by many things: sorting shoes and clothing, assembling hygiene kits, welcoming guests, shopping for supplies—often several times a day.
Amidst all this “tripping about” there was little time to reflect on the experience. So I will try to share a few poignant moments with you hoping that, in some small way, you can have a vicarious experience of being at the border with our refugee families.
The most moving experience, by far, was greeting each new family as they arrived after being released by ICE. Streaming through the doors to our greetings of “Buenos dias” or “Bienvenidos,” each one is welcomed. Many embrace you and respond with a word of gratitude. How extraordinary the depth of gratitude expressed by those who have endured so much and still have a long journey ahead of them.
So many of you have sent shoelaces, making your own connection and being a part of this ministry. How I wish I could share with you the delighted smiles on the faces of the little ones as they see the vivid colors and marvel that they can actually have a pair of them. How often we take for granted even the smallest things like a pair of shoelaces! Yet, this small gesture means so much to children who have struggled to walk with their shoes flopping on their small feet. Such an experience makes me mindful of being more attentive to those who offer me even the smallest kindnesses.
Shoes seem to be a place of conversion for me! I have two more small stories from the “shoe room.” It is quite a place, filled with boxes of shoes, some new and others slightly used. You can just imagine what shoes look like having trod hundreds of miles, so people are often in need of new or better shoes than those they have.
A young mother, grasping the hand of her five-year-old daughter, appeared at the door requesting shoes. The mother began to look through the bin containing the size she thought might fit her daughter’s little feet. She found a brand new pair of gray and pink canvas shoes. Just perfect, as one can see from the delighted smile on her daughter’s face. They fit perfectly! I left to get scissors to cut off the tags and the plastic fasteners holding the pair together.
When I returned, I was greeted by the child holding up another pair of shoes exactly like the ones she was now wearing. Through gestures, I realized that she wanted that pair, too. I responded, “No, solo uno.” It was then that the mother went to the door and another child, the twin of the girl in the room, came shyly into the shoe room. This little girl wanted shoes for her twin sister and was so overjoyed that they could not just have shoes, but matching ones! It would have been so easy for her to delight in her own good fortune. Yet, she wanted to be sure that her sister had the same good fortune. What a lesson in sharing, thinking of others and of great kindness. Thank you, little one, for your witness of goodness and care, amid your own pain and loss.
Another story from the “shoe room.” A young man, a teenager, was walking with one shoe on and one shoe off because he had a gash on his foot that was bandaged, and his shoe would not fit over it. When we were finally successful in our search for a pair of shoes that fit, he thanked me repeatedly and then hugged me. Such gratitude for used shoes! I was awed and humbled by this man’s thanks. Hopefully, we were a blessing for each other. So much to learn!
When each family arrives, they receive a reusable shopping bag like those found in supermarkets. They are filled with hygiene kits, shoelaces and other necessities. Folks often add their own few belongings to the bag. Their snacks are added as they prepare to leave for the bus terminal. As you might imagine, there are cartons and cartons of these bags. Each has the handles secured with a tag and a plastic string. This makes the distribution of supplies difficult with the handles secured in this manner. Anne asked if Jean, another one of the volunteers, and I would cut the tags off. There were 17 cartons of bags!
We decided to take a break from being inside and so set ourselves up at a large, round, wooden table outside. As we prepared for this task, immediately several teenage boys and men appeared to help. They formed an assembly line and we quickly accomplished the task. Jean, who is fluent in Spanish, engaged the group as we worked. As we completed the bags and the cartons were returned to their storage spot, we all sat around together laughing and communicating as best we could. At one point, we were learning Spanish words and we were teaching them English ones. It was a moment of real mutuality as we were able to share and laugh together. What a gift amid such heartbreak and loss. Laughter and camaraderie had the ability to heal and refresh. Eucharist, in a non-traditional way, was happening at this moment. Gift, gratitude, thanks.
My hope is that these small vignettes gave you a glimpse of life here on the border. Each of you were a part of this mercying by your prayers, concerns, donations. As the days progress, I am sure that more stories will emerge as I reflect on this experience. I have been involved in the work of immigration reform for many years through lobbying and demonstrating, but the opportunity to see the faces and to interact with those impacted by this terrible situation is powerful and moving. I will be forever grateful for this time and pray that someday soon this situation changes through compassionate and comprehensive immigration policies.
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